Yes, it’s that good. The National Bozos of Review this week seemed to have stumbled upon a good decision, giving Clint Eastwood’s part two of his WWII duo, Letters from Iwo Jima, its best picture prize, while tossing Scorsese the director award for The Departed. Skeptics (understandably, considering the National Board’s iffy history and dum-dum track record; a tad too cynical considering Eastwood’s stellar recent track record) chalked it up to some Warner Bros. bed-snuggling….blah blah. Certainly the rest of that list is sheerly hilarious (Blood Diamond!!!), but now having seen Eastwood’s film, there seems to be no question of its worthiness. We’ll cover the film more in depth later on, but for all those gnashing their teeth to see how Eastwood handles this almost blindingly sensitive and somewhat unprecedented subject matter, your minds can be put to rest. Freed from the burden of Haggis-speak, Eastwood regains the intimacy he does so well: Letters from Iwo Jima is written by first-timer Iris Yamashita as a heart-wrenching crawl towards doom. The good intentions of Flags of Our Fathers were somewhat undermined by broad sketchiness and an overly fragmented narrative–Eastwood is best at narratives that move forward with deliberate inexorable tragedy (The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby) and that convey the passage of time in subtle, shadowy gestures. Iwo Jima is a war film that leaves the space for those moments, here between men, stranded and knowingly headed towards their own annhilation. Iwo Jima is a great human tragedy, neither too do-gooder nor agenda-driven (both the Japanese protagonists and the American enemies–the latter barely registering as characters, seen often from great distances–display both barbarism and mercy, alternately), a new viewpoint of an age-old story, one that most Americans have perhaps never thought of. It’s both earnest and cunning in the way that it plays with Americans’ conceptions of the Imperial Army, and it neither refutes nor justifies the knowledge we bring with us as viewers.
It’s a precarious picture…an American director, fascinated by the notion of Japanese “honor” and patriotism, delves into history, trying to excavate a buried world for the edification of himself and his viewers…a lesser filmmaker, one who doesn’t understand the importance of silence, the weight of violence, and the tenderness bred in isolation, would have exoticized these characters (played outstandingly by all, especially, Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, and Tsuyoshi Ihara). Miraculously, Eastwood falls into none of the traps.Those moments that seem indelibly “Japanese” (most involving the honor of suicide in wartime) register with tremendous emotional weight…to such an extent that the plight of the American soldiers in Flags seem as trivialities in comparison. Eastwood seems to have put his heart and soul into the crafting of this film, and his passion, empathy, and respect for his subject matter registers in nearly every frame. It’s the American film of the year.